Friday, April 17, 2009

Darwin and Kakadu, Australia

Yes, Australia. A very spontaneous and last-minute decision really, as we had no intention of going before. Why would a bunch of broke travellers go there? Well, we thought we had it all figured out. From East Timor our goal was to get back to Singapore and the mainland but without backtracking through Indonesia. Brainstorming options in Kuching (back on Borneo) with Jake we found the cheap flight to Darwin and a cheap one from there to Singapore. Why transit when you could stop a few days? Especially since the Aussie dollar had been hit hard by the economic crisis?
So we gave ourselves a week, figuring to rent (and then sleep in) a car and go visit the free Kakadu National Park nearby. Sounds great on paper but if even the best laid plans go astray, this one, built on enthusiasm rather than research, was doomed from the start. Even before the got there things went downhill for us. In the month before we arrived the Aussie dollar gained 10% and I couldn't find a good deal on a rental car like we'd had in Ireland or South Africa. One interesting way of travelling Australia is to rent a camper van already decked out and just sleep in it but there were none available. Even the car I eventually got (a Hyundai Elantra) had limited Km on it (we'd've gone nuts with one week and unlimited mileage). And then we arrived.....
Somehow we overlooked the minor detail of arriving on the morning of Good Friday, one of only 4 days a year when EVERYTHING is closed. We got our rental car and had intended to hit a supermarket and go straight to the park. Not to be as there were no stores open anywhere. We'd have to stop for the night somewhere but a quick look in town at the price of a dorm (ouch) and after getting attacked by a psychotic bird, we made a demoralized retreat to the outskirts in search of a caravan park. They wouldn't even let us in the cabins for a single night and since we didn't have camping gear (we sent it home after Africa) we kept moving out further until we found a tackle shop with some basic gear and advice on where we could bushcamp. Are we in Australia or back in Africa now? Actually so many features of this trip reminded us of Africa that we constantly accidentally referred to it as such. With that developed yet remote feel, a rental car and white people, it felt like we'd been transported back to Namibia or South Africa again.
Our bushcamp was successful and yet miserable because I slept in the car (the others outside) and it doesn't cool down at night at all. You could literally wring the sweat out of my shirt that night. It is so hot and humid in the area and with no breeze, day and night that all you do is sweat and sweat and stink and stink. On paper Darwin is only in the low 30's and the same as most of the rest of southeast Asia but it feels like the hottest place I've ever been. Seriously. 50C in Peshawar has nothing on this. My body had completely lost the ability to not sweat. The signs around the park (yes, we eventually did get there) tell you to drink 1L of water per hour! I guess they've run into tourists with this problem before...
As if all this wasn't bad enough we ran into the real torture of the area, mosquitoes. We woke to the biggest and most vicious swarms of mosquitoes I've ever seen or even heard of. Thousands waited outside the tents every morning and attacked anything that smelled like us. All my exposed flesh (and a lot of the covered flesh too because they bite right through shirts and socks) quickly became a mass of bumps, while my clothes, the tents and the inside of the car were covered with the mutilated remains of the victims of my anti-mosquito wrath. And I had a lot of wrath... Jake became my best weapon because he always woke to the underside of his tent fly completely covered with dead ones :) Still, it was to be the all consuming but ultimately hopeless battle that would end up defining my Australian experience.
The first morning's trip to the supermarket to stock up also kind of freaked me out. Food is so expensive (worse than home) and after telling myself for the last few years that anywhere with lots of white people is overpriced and touristy and best avoided, it was all I could do to not run out of there screaming. Home culture shock is not going to be pretty for me. It seemed like everyone else was also buying baked beans and tuna because it's fishing season now with even the immigration guy at the airport telling us we'd picked a great time to come because the fish were big and biting. Yeah, right. So were the mosquitoes.... After a quick look at the locals I'd have to say that the guys all seemed to be big and tattooed, with 4x4's and vicious-looking dogs all walking around with their shirts off and a beer in hand. Stereotyping is sometimes quite accurate. All but the tattoos (quite common in Asia) were a shock. The women, well, let's just say their not even close to being my type.
Having equipped ourselves we entered Kakadu NP. Kakadu is one of the major natural attractions of Australia and is about the size of Israel. Crocodiles are its most famous residents and it was the place they filmed Crocodile Dundee. Around Darwin there are tons of Croc parks all with regular feeding schedules for the gory scene if you want it and actually it seemed like that and WWII history locations were the only attraction signs pointing off the road.
Although there are lots of vegetative zones in the park, most is savanna woodland and it felt like we were on African safari again but without any hope of seeing the Big 5. We didn't come all this way for animals though. Kakadu is beside some traditional (and self-governing) Aboriginal land (Arnhemland) and so it is most famous for its prehistoric rock art and other Aboriginal culture. Aborigines have been in the area here for 40,000 years so this is some of the oldest (and youngest) rock art in the world with work being dated from around 20,000 years ago up until the 1960's or so. I think this just ended up adding to an even more African element to everything because those guys are totally black too. More so than some Africans I have seen.
So the plan was to enter a free park, stay at the free campsite and drive around for the week going on hikes and looking at rock art. Little did we realize that the days would be so hot we'd spend most of our time hiding in the car for A/C and half the trails were still closed because it was the end of the wet season and they were still flooded or unsafe. The free campsites had no water and only pit toilets, there was no breeze so the air was incredibly hot all night long and the mosquitoes had reached "biblical plague" proportions. We had found hell and all of us were openly counting down the days when we'd be sent back to the comforts of the 3rd world.
Lacking a tent, I used two mosquito nets, one on the ground and one from a tree, to make something resembling a tent that I could hide in in the evenings. Repellent just did not work at all so we more or less were held hostage in our tents as soon as we arrived at camp in the evening shortly before sunset until we were roasted out of our tents in the morning sun. One time Jake got out of his tent, zipped it up, grabbed something from the car and jumped back in his tent and then had to spend the next half hour killing the 101 mosquitoes that got in with him.
It wasn't all bad though and we did develop a system for our days. In the morning and early afternoon we'd visit the sites or go on short hikes and then spend the late afternoon in the small A/C library at the visitor centre until it closed before going back to camp. We also snuck into one of the resorts a couple times to use their showers and pool. As for our "safari" we didn't see any crocs, but did see a handful of wallabies beside the road on our way back to Darwin. Go figure, they were outside the park.
So it was with great relief (and a sense of dread, the way things had been going) that we got on the plane to fly to Singapore where we were to meet up with Paul for a month.


At 9:40 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

So my cousins say, why won't you come down and visit? I think I will cut an d paste your post and send it to them. The only thing missing was the spiders and snakes!!!

Been out to see Dad, he's doing okay, but has his bad days....

Sorry I have been off the nets lately.



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